Why delays in COVID-19 mass testing? An expert explains

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 18 2020 10:28 PM

MANILA — An expert working with the Department of Health (DOH) explained on Monday how technical problems have become a hindrance to the Philippines’ attempts ramp up its coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) testing.

During a televised DOH briefing, Dr. Marife Yap, deputy director for health financing in the Philippines for health systems development organization Thinkwell, explained how shortages in extraction kits or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) kits have become a problem for some laboratories.

“Una sa lahat, meron hong mga laboratoryo na may mga makina na nangangailangan ng iisang uri lamang o iilang brand lamang ng RNA (Ribonucleic acid) extraction kit or PCR kits,” explained Yap, whose group has been helping the DOH streamline its testing processes.

(There are laboratories with machines that can only use a certain kind or brand of RNA extraction kit or PCR kits.)

PCR testing for COVID-19 involves matching the genetic material of the virus with patient samples. At the start of the pandemic, the DOH already mentioned how they made sure that the test kits being purchased or received by the country are compatible with the machines in accredited laboratories.

As of May 18, there are only 30 licensed COVID-19 testing laboratories in the country, most of them in Luzon. Only two are found in Mindanao.

Yap explained that it is hard to acquire specific test kits because of the high demand worldwide.

“Nakikipagkompetensya tayo sa ibang bansa na pare-parehong nangangailangan po ng mga kits na ito,” she said, explaining that the World Health Organization only recognizes PCR testing.

(We are competing with other countries that also need these kits.)

And because the government have opened "mega-swabbing centers," she said laboratories are now overwhelmed with samples to test.

READ: https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/05/08/20/mall-of-asia-arena-mega-swabbing-center-to-test-20000-ofws-dizon

“Dagsa din po ang dating mga sample natin kaya mabilis pong maubos ang ating mga supplies,” she said.

(Laboratories are flooded with samples so their supplies are also dwindling fast.)

She said buying and importing supplies would take two to three weeks.

She said the country’s health sector has been able to make do with donated test kits that are validated by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.

“Meron rin tayong ilang private laboratory partners na nagpahiram ng kanilang extraction kits para lang po hindi tumigil lalo na ang ating mga lab na nasa probinsya na sila lamang ang inaasahan para sa mga test na ito,” she said.

(We also have some private laboratory partners that have lent their extraction kits so our testing won’t stop especially for labs in the provinces where they are the only ones doing the testing.)

She said the government and the private sector are also working to set up a system to quickly replenish supplies of laboratories.

Besides shortages, Yap explained that the process of PCR testing can be time consuming.

She said that if a lab does not have an automated platform like GeneXpert-capable laboratories, medical technicians would have to manually handle the extracting of the genetic material from the samples.

She said the extraction takes four hours, especially for newly trained personnel. The processing within the PCR machine takes two hours.

Overall, Yap said the process, which includes interpreting the results, would last 8 hours. This does not include the time spent for collecting and delivering the samples.

Despite increasing public clamor for mass testing, the government has only been able to spearhead “expanded testing” that prioritizes symptomatic patients and those from vulnerable sectors.

The government recently received flak for relying on the private sector for mass testing.

For its part, the DOH said the delay in the accreditation of the laboratories is not its fault. It cited the need for laboratories to meet biosafety standards, although it assured the public that the department is assisting laboratories, especially outside Metro Manila, so they may fulfill the basic requirements for COVID-19 testing.

The DOH has recently been unable to release the daily testing capacity of the country, although as of May 15, it was able to conduct 11,127 tests in a day. The government’s goal is to run 30,000 tests a day by the end of May.